How I fixed my brain to save my marriage as a brain-based happiness coach
“It will affect our marriage,” my husband told me one day before leaving for work, making me panic and worried. My body felt paralyzed yet my mind was right away busy doing a heavy mental examination of what “it” was and what-ifs. By then, we had uprooted our stable life in Singapore, an island of utter comfort where it was a norm to have a domestic helper doing all the chores. Moving to the land of opportunities, my husband had a new role working on cutting-edge technologies, and I became an entrepreneur mom for flexibility, balance and pursuing what felt like my best career fit. Our then 8-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter enjoyed their new schools and friendships. We were living the American dream.
Yet after more than one year trying out our new life, with more on our to-do lists, did we realize that the seemingly tiny unhappy moments between us brushed off before were finally brought to light: they were magnified. Two weeks after that brief conversation, sitting on a bench in a local park and watching the autumn leaves falling, I feared our family would as well fall apart. “Well, welcome to America,” I chuckled with bitterness.
As if the world had been collapsing, and as paradoxical as it may have sounded, I even thought of giving up my career as a Life-Career Happiness Coach. That way, I could tend to our home more, so I wouldn’t complain to my husband how busy I was the moment he arrived home from work. That way, I could save our family’s happiness. But a few weeks later, when I delivered a happiness workshop for WeWork and saw the sparks among the participants, I felt so alive. Then I had an epiphany, “I can’t throw my career away. I don’t have to give up my career to save us! Indeed, helping people be happy will make me feel happy and when I am happy, I could help my husband and our relationship too.” So I kept going with my mission, which uplifted me during the dark days and helped me renovate our relationship, once and for all.
One recent day, my daughter chirped to her music teacher, “My little brother laughed a lot on the plane to London!” She responded, “Yes, I can tell, my dear, as he knows he is raised in a loving home.” True to her words, now a few years later, my husband and I found a new level of depth in our love, and felt deep in our bones the happiness we create together for our home and our beloved children. The results of our uplevelled relationship were that we got our dream home, we renovated our kitchen as a team with great satisfaction, and our third baby was born and welcomed to the world with lots of affection. We have significantly grown and succeeded in our careers, and sailed through big decisions and life projects together more effortlessly as true partners. Our kids are positive, happy and do well at school with inner strengths further nourished. Equally importantly, we each become a better person thanks to that challenge, and could imagine, under… our shared roof, the sky is our limit.
That’s our story in short. This is also the story, with different nuances, of many women / mothers I work with. So how do we not only fix but also nurture a relationship? It took me two years to religiously train my own brain and another year of partnering with my husband in training ours, together. It also took practice-based understanding of how the human brains work, and the use of a powerful set of brain-based tools from my profession. The mental work was surely the hardest in my life and my brain-training diary was hundreds of pages long. Yet it was all worth it.
It is said, “The choice we make, makes us.” If you make that choice of being the creator, not the victim, of the life you aspire to have and the relationship you long for, then below are the high-level behind-the-scenes expert principles and most important of all, experience-derived tips. Of course, this choice has to be made based on the fact that you both share certain core values and desires, and you believe there’s real goodness in your partner. However, be warned that they are way deeper than what many therapists and coaches tell you.
1. Normalize: knowing no two brains are alike
“It’s difficult to live with her,” someone once told my husband about me. I felt unfairly and harshly judged at first. However, isn’t it difficult to live with anyone other than ourselves as two brains are not alike? Our wirings are different due to how we were raised, grew and experienced with many events and influences in life. Therefore, if two people are to be in a close relationship like husband and wife, we should expect misalignments, tension and clashes. If someone tells you they don’t, tell them, “good for you” but please also know that it is a lie. Or ask them if they are completely happy.
In addition, there’s another deeper layer to such difference. Everyone is born with some natural tendencies / traits / personalities / strengths / talents that program how we do things and respond to situations in certain ways. Often, they are activated by events during childhood and emphasized further by critical events happening later on in our adult life. In the right circumstances, they are our strengths and therefore, they are helpful and great. In others, they are blind spots, hindering our ability to fully unleash our potential at work and to enjoy a truly happy and collaborative relationship in life. In my case, I carried with me a huge emotional wound from the past that made me both highly sensitive (which I only realized and accepted much later on) and benign to others’ emotions, so that statement could be, “It’s more difficult to live with her,” to be more accurate.
Since our tendencies are natural within us, we often can’t see them. If we do, we may not be aware of them fully and the very deep reason why we are who we are. As life goes on with many things to worry about, particularly as parents, we are often ignorant of them. When there are triggers, we view ourselves as victims. When we can’t change others, the resentment builds up, and in some cases, helplessness arrives or anger bursts. This could happen on both sides, and over time, it can cause disconnection, shutting down and even break-up. In our case, I was incognizant of my husband’s silent disagreement and resentment. On his end, he was not communicative about his needs and wants, which led to his shutting down. With a sensitive child living in me still, I then feel unworthy of love and disrespected. Fairly speaking, we were still a happy and functional family with “I love you” and hugs and kisses, but there was such silent spoiler unaddressed.
So to understand that clashes are normal is to know that you are not alone, you are not a fraud, your relationship bump is not the only. This way, your brain would be in a responsive mode from which you would be kind to yourself and believe in possibility, in magic.
2. Vision: activating the motivation
Both of us shared one great desire. Born and grew up in a family where my dad abandoned us, I had longed for a happy family of my own where my kids would grow up being so loved and cared for. On my husband’s end, he was born into a truly loving family that modelled for him when building his own, and I felt it strongly. The potential for change was there. In my diary at the beginning of this journey was the vision I set for myself, my husband and my family, which played as the shining light for my thoughts and action.
3. Stabilize: minimizing the negativity and increasing positivity
A relationship injury needs to be patched up first. And it requires at least one side to step up. In my case, I chose to be the one. I found some professional help for my husband so he could have support of his own given he didn’t have the tools I had, before our brains were balanced and got connected. Amazingly, he accepted it, out of the buried love for me and the unspoken deepest desire for us to reinforce our roof together.
On my end, I often forced myself to shift my thoughts from unhelpful ones to those that are more helpful or at least neutral. I constantly challenged my thoughts, moving from blaming my husband or feeling unloved to understanding and feeling for him. When this inner work was not effective and exhausting, I resorted to my aunt who not only loved and understood me but also highly thought of my husband and always wished the best for our family. She gave me perspectives elevating the way I looked at the situations. Only then, my response would be empathetic and loving instead of feeling pity for myself or being angry and blurting out. I tuned into my husband’s feelings and thoughts more. The effect was that my husband became more listening and connected with me more. This inner work required a great amount of discipline, time and mental strength. The good news is with practice, you can make the shift more quickly and skillfully.
Later on, when the ice had melted, when my husband was more opened up, when we somehow recovered our connection to a truly healthy level, this stabilizing work involved more efforts from both sides through a brain-based conversation I facilitated. After I was able to put my brain in responsive mode through brain-training, I addressed feelings and asked questions for us to focus on a mutual vision and solutions. When I shared some challenges, my beloved husband no longer assumed that I thought he was not supportive enough. Instead, we discussed resolutions. Sometimes, I had to demand for such conversations, highlighting that if we didn’t, we would see consequences we didn’t want to see. Then we became well-versed in such talks and as a result, the needs for them also decreased.
The next priority for me was to bring more happiness to our relationship. The reason is for every negative interaction, there should be at least five positive ones for a relationship to be solid. We had more conversations about our shared vision that anchors our thoughts and action, and how we prioritized in our life. We also discussed shared values, how to better partner each other as a team, and constantly withdrew lessons. Apart from the big things, I was more aware of creating daily connection habits. Even just a few minutes in the kitchen listening to my husband sharing about a fun video and laughing together is already a wonder. I also made efforts to bring more happy moments, from things as simple as being fully present to caring for my husband in little ways, to going on adventures free of worries together. There could be millions of ways, but remember we have to clearly know what truly matters, and have our calendar reflect the same so we have the mental space for all these.
4. Uplevel: Living the HI Zone
This is when we uplevelled our relationship by going really deep, through understanding our Happiness Infinity (HI) Zone composed of our natural talents / tendencies, life purpose, core values and true passion. We sat down together, having the deep dive, going back to our childhood, seeing and reflecting data points from test results, and revisiting the key events that shaped who we are and how the past stories still influenced the way we led our current lives. We then clearly saw and understood each other’s natural strengths as well as blind spots holistically. More importantly, we also saw how they interacted with each other, and how working on our own blind spots and leveraging on our unique talents at home and at work could bring about double effects. What my husband told me when we were still dating nearly 20 years ago — “I was born because you were” — now made an absolute sense.
The results are, with better awareness, deeper mutual understanding and the right language to label our tendencies, we were more motivated to make conscious efforts to live in our zones together. We move more swiftly in case of misalignments. We rooted for each other’s professional, personal and mutual dreams. And in the future, when our children are big enough, we could help them to uncover their HI Zones as well so all of us could unleash our potential and live our best lives together.
You now may wonder if it’s a “happily forever after” fairy tale. The answer is a yes and no, as conflicts and challenges will continue to happen, as always. But now you will approach resolving them as true partners, with happier brains, from a way deeper place, towards further growth. You are liberated to see more opportunities and magic in life, towards happiness infinity.
Now, looking back, I am grateful to that challenge that helped solidify our marriage and made us each grow for ourselves, for each other and for our children.
Now, sitting in my cozy home amid a winter day and feeling vastly loving and deeply loved, I wanted to say, “Thank you America. I’m glad I made that choice.”
And now it’s your turn: What choice do you make? What narrative reflecting that choice do you want to tell a few years from now?
P. S. Happy Valentine’s Day!
*Amy Nguyen is working on a book about her journey of training her mom’s brain to have her all from more peaceful parenting to more solid relationships to successful career pivot and entrepreneurship. Subscribe to her weekly Happier YOU Letter for weekly happiness-fuelled stories and brain-based tips to uplevel your happiness in both work and life.